Michelle Foster is the founder of The Foster Group, a former litigation partner, and veteran legal recruiter with 20 years of experience.
As a newly minted law associate, I worked closely with one of the named partners of the firm for the first four to five years of my legal career. He taught me the ropes on taking depositions, trying cases and managing client relationships. At trials, I was his right hand. When I wrote briefs, he would edit them. The mentoring I received from working so closely with him was invaluable.
But that was before the Covid-19 pandemic and the shift to remote work. Then, mentoring happened elbow-to-elbow. Junior and senior attorneys worked next door to each other. They had consistent communication. Critical skills were caught as well as taught.
Now, it’s complicated. Younger attorneys are no longer walking the same halls as senior associates and partners. There is less collaboration. Feedback is often not provided in real time. The traditional mentoring model has broken down as the workforce has become distributed. For junior attorneys and others just beginning their careers, achieving success means establishing a new process for receiving the teaching and training that mentors provide.
The Downside Of Remote Mentoring
Mentoring is critical to professional development because it goes well beyond technical training. Mentors provide access to not just expertise but wisdom gained through experience. While they often provide instruction and correction on required tasks, they also guide those in junior positions regarding the cultural or political landscape of the company or industry. Mentors have been there, and they have learned what it takes to progress. Connecting with a mentor provides access to information that cannot be found in a textbook.
Zoom has become the means of connecting for those engaging in remote work. For attorneys working remotely, training typically involves Zoom lectures, simulations and custom-tailored online learning tools. How-to platforms, such as Practical Law, are becoming common instructional tools used by firms. Knowledge management teams are springing up to facilitate access to all of these resources.
While such resources can be helpful, they fail to provide opportunities for what can be the most impactful mentoring experiences. Oftentimes, junior associates receive valuable mentoring from senior associates within their group when they casually chat with them and get to know them over the watercooler. Those relationships allow junior associates to learn without the tension that they can feel when soliciting guidance from a partner.
In-person interactions allow junior and senior associates to work hand-in-glove with each other in a way that is often more instructive than online collaboration. For example, junior associates often will second-seat a deposition, during which they do not take the deposition, but will witness the partner or senior associate taking the deposition. They are in the room where it happens, and they can experience and learn from subtleties that are challenging to discern in a digital setting.
Bringing A Fresh Focus To Mentoring
I have mentored each of the recruiters at my company, working very closely with them day in and day out—essentially teaching them everything I have learned during more than 20 years of professional recruiting. My approach to mentoring is to treat the junior recruiter as my teammate. In the past, we worked in tandem to achieve strong results on behalf of the candidates and law firms with whom we partner. The result has been a strong, successful team with close ties and connections.
I see the current lack of effective mentoring resulting in an unspooling of the ties and connections employees tend to gain when they are mentored. The personal and cultural ties that traditional mentoring establishes often translate to success for the mentee as well as retention for the firm. Remote work has loosened some of the tight-knit cultures that many firms and corporations have built, and I see the decline in mentoring as a key contributor to that outcome. If firms do not find a way to bring back effective mentoring, I would anticipate more movement in the market by employees who are not embedded in the ever important company culture and structures.
Reversing the negative impact that remote work has had on mentoring requires a new level of commitment from both mentors and mentees. A higher level of planning and focus is necessary, as well as regular and strategic communication between partners and associates. The organic connections that happened among those working under the same roof are much harder to achieve. As a result, young attorneys must now go the extra mile to build strong relationships with partners and other mentors.
In addition, young attorneys should keep in mind that the mere fact of being together in the office does not guarantee effective mentoring. The key is not being together, but working closely together so that mentors can provide concrete and constructive review of work, suggestions on how to improve the desired end product and real-time feedback on how to thrive in a variety of common scenarios. Whether your mentorship and work occurs in person, remote or hybrid, it will only be effective if it passes on the skills that are necessary to succeed.